Best Luxury Watches
You’re spoilt for choice at The Watch Gallery. But when it comes down to it, Alex Doak has no hesitation in selecting his five ultimate bits of wristwear
One of the reasons we love watches so much at The Watch Gallery is the arguments they inspire. Not real arguments, mind, as there’s no black and white in the world of luxury watches; everything has its place, everything has its merit. But when it comes down to it, everyone has their opinions, and boy do watches divide them, like a World Cup conversation in a crowded pub. The original automatic chronograph of 1969 – was it Heuer’s Calibre 11 or Zenith’s El Primero? The better system for a chronograph – is it a cam or a column wheel? The tourbillon – do you really need one in a wristwatch?
We can’t promise to know the answers to any of these, but we can certainly enjoy having a stab. Just as we can all enjoy arguing over a so-called ‘definitive list’. There’s nothing quite like a list to divide a pub conversation, after all. So let me start with something simple: my ‘5 best luxury watches’. It was a doddle to choose from The Watch Gallery’s near-perfect portfolio of brands, but what do you think? (Obviously, you’re wrong whatever you say…)
Best luxury modern classic
The word ‘iconic’ is bandied about by everyone from watchmakers to candlestickmakers these days, but there are few other timepieces so truly deserving of this label than AP’s Royal Oak. When it launched in 1972, it was the very first luxury sports watch in steel – previously considered a poor man’s material. What made it luxurious? The precision-engineered mechanics ticking away inside of course, but also the fact it was so darned difficult to mill-out and polish that revolutionary but tricksy octagonal ‘porthole’ case shape using such a tough metal. In fact, the steel Royal Oak was more expensive than comparable gold watches at the time… and was, somewhat understandably, a rather tough sell. But by keeping the faith and barely tweaking a single line, icon status was duly conferred as lounge lizards, boulevardiers and golfers alike all adopted. If you can afford a Royal Oak, buy it – it’s as timelessly cool as a pair of Persols, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as Ray-Ban.
Best luxury chronograph
In 1975, Charles Vermot was in charge of Workshop 4 at Zenith, where for the past six years, he’d overseen assembly of every El Primero chronograph. On the week of his retirement, the order had come in from the Zenith Radio Corporation parent group to cease all production of mechanical watches and make way for quartz, which meant scrapping the El Primero’s tooling at the price of molten metal. Refusing to see a decade of his life tossed on the scrap heap, Charley secretly hid all the tools in an attic, meticulouslty labeling everything and copying out the entire production process. Come the mid-Eighties, as Vermot and so many watchmakers predicted, interest in fine mechanical watches was back on the upswing and the Swiss consortium that now owned Zenith naturally turned to the El Primero – its crowning glory of 1969 as not only the world’s first automatic chronograph but also the first to beat at the highly precise frequency of 36,000vph. Thanks to Charley’s heroic efforts, that revival could be realised, and we now have a split-seconds rattrapante model, a ‘Striking Tenth’ tenth-of-a-second counting chronograph and even a tourbillon. But this model, with a window into the high-frequency balance itself, is the ultimate iteration in my books.
Best luxury complication
In answer to the above question, a tourbillon has little to no relevance to the modern wristwatch beyond expressing the highest order of watchmaking skill and the sheer, mesmerising spectacle of a movement’s ticking balance tumbling over and over itself like a tiny merry-go-round. But when Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon over 200 years ago, it was for very practical reasons: evening-out gravity’s deleterious effect on the delicate balance spring as the watch sat upright in a gentleman’s pocket all day. These days, we wave our wrists around all day, acting ourselves as human tourbillons, but if you have the means and a passion for traditional horology, a modern-day Breguet Tourbillon is the most visceral link to the roots of what’s considered the ultimate complication.
Best luxury diving watch
You can argue till the manatees come home about who really pipped who to the post in bringing the first genuine diving watch to market in 1953, but Blancpain gets cult-cool status over Rolex’s Submariner with its Fifty Fathoms, thanks to a litany of military iterations, all started by the original commission from the French navy’s elite frogmen for a practical sub-aqua timing instrument. Blancpain invented the rotating bezel as a result – a system still used by all analogue diving watches. This slick ‘Bathyscaphe’ reimagination in ceramic is Blancpain’s most contemporary creation yet, and even comes on a bang-on-trend military nylon strap.
Best luxury cocktail watch
Vacheron Constantin: the quiet connoisseur’s choice of wristwatch, and master of slim understatement, boasting an unbroken 255-year history and arguably the single-best protagonist of hand finishing at an industrial scale. Need I say more? Thought not. So just feast your eyes on this, a rare bit of rakish flair from the brand, which will pair perfectly with a tux. A contemporary version of one of Vacheron Constantin’s most iconic pieces from the Twenties, it actually represents genuine practicality when it comes to glancing at the time without swinging your arm into view – as long as you wear your watch on your left wrist, of course. Which is the correct way. And that’s not up for argument.